Despite the Downturn: An Answer Album
An article in the May 2010 issue of the magazine The Atlantic critiqued the current generation of young music fans for rampant copyright violation.
In a small irony, the illustration used to decorate the article interpolated a detail of a preexisting work that appears to not yet be in the public domain.
This notice isn’t intended as a criticism of the illustrator -- quite the contrary; the illustration is excellent -- but instead of the theoretical foundation of the article, which suggests a clear line between right and wrong where there is, in fact, significant ambiguity.
The richness of this ambiguity is evidenced by the creative license employed by the magazine’s illustrator, and by musicians everywhere who artfully employ preexisting work in their own compositions and performances.
The biggest issue with the article, however, isn’t its conception of copyright, but its sense of its own scope.
The piece, by Atlantic editor Megan McArdle, applies itself to “the music industry,” though by most appearances it’s really concerned with the record industry. Confusing the two, let alone equating them, is like claiming to talk knowledgably about the state of the U.S. economy when really just looking to Wall Street as a barometer -- it’s a matter of mistaking part for whole.
The article demands a response, and since it’s a business story about art, why not respond in the form of art?
This compilation, then, is a non-verbal answer album by various musicians who have agreed to interpret the article’s illustration as if it were in fact a score -- an operation inspired by the art’s employment of sheet music. (The album’s “cover” is a small quadrant of the original illustration.)
There are at least two major traditions in the intermingling of visual art and music.
One is when musicians pay homage to an existing artwork, as in Morton Feldman’s musical tribute to the Rothko Chapel, or more recently Ted Nash’s “Portrait in Seven Shades” (a Jazz at Lincoln Center commission based on works from the Museum of Modern Art by Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollack, and others).
The other is when musicians treat a graphic image as a score, an approach with a strong avant-garde lineage. Among the best examples is Christian Marclay’s “Graffiti Composition.” It involved setting up musical notation paper all around Berlin, and then -- after the blank staffs had been scrawled on, layered with advertisements, and otherwise damaged -- collecting them and selecting those most redolent with musical potential. The pages were later collected as a book and are used as scores by musicians.
This project, Despite the Downturn, is a mix of those two traditions: it’s an homage to a work that wasn’t intended to be read as music, and yet the homage involves treating it as a proper score.
The Atlantic’s highly talented illustrator, Jeremy Traum, has taken a piece of sheet music and shown it in disrepair, no doubt to evidence, in visual terms, McArdle’s thesis that this generation of “freeloaders” (those who traffic in file-sharing) is threatening the future of “entertainment.”
The thing is, while McArdle’s concerns are dire (even if her arguments are specious), Traum’s image is strikingly beautiful. The warped notes are plaintive, the urchins look more lost than threatening, and the stain across the top brings to mind some abstract drawing by John Cage.
If anything, Traum’s picture serves as a kind of Rorschach test for readers of the article:
Does it look beautiful to you, or does it alarm you?
Do you want to hear what this music sounds like, or does it immediately telegraph the degradation of composition?
I forwarded Traum’s image, and article it accompanied, to various musicians and asked them if they would record a piece of music that took Traum’s picture literally: use it as a score. (Not a single musician wrote back and said anything along the lines of, “You know, I read the article, and as a professional musician I agreed with its points and therefore am declining to participate.”) Some contributors used the notes as a starting point, while others took the canvas as a picture to be interpreted as a whole. One particularly industrious participant contracted Traum, and learned that the notation in the illustration is an excerpt from Ernest Bloch’s “Suite hébraïque,” which dates from the early 1950s.
This compilation album’s title comes from a sentence in McArdle’s essay in which the booming concert industry is seen as a success “despite the downturn” in the record industry, rather than allowing for a causality -- that the more widely and freely available music has helped touring musicians expand their audiences. (Considering this is supposed to be a non-verbal response, I’m kind of going on a bit. I previously wrote about McArdle and Traum’s work at Disquiet.com, my website, so please visit there for additional thoughts on the topic.)
For there will be musicians even if the record industry (as we know it) never recovers, just as there will be artists even if all the art galleries shut their doors forever.
May 3, 2010
PS: If you are inspired to make your own interpretation, don’t hesitate to do so and to get in touch with me, via Disquiet.com.
For the original McArdle article and Traum illustration, visit:
For my first thoughts on the article, visit:
For my follow-up, visit:
For this compilation’s home on Disquiet.com, visit:
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About the Musicians on Despite the Downturn:
Track 1: “Adieu for Industry”
by Sighup (aka Steve Hamann)
Artist’s Description of Piece: “I chose to interpret actions and elements contained within the image as the basis of musical instruction. The key elements for me were the few remaining notes on the foreground staff before they were burgled, the jumble of notes in the bag, the noise and detritus scattered about the burglars, the orange swash, and the impression of musical remnants. The result is repeated figures of a few notes, clashing in layers, covered in a haze of recording and processing artifacts, and resolving in a swell. The sounds I used is a combination of found recordings and original material, the swash of orange/swell at the end is a loop taken from a public domain recording of Beethoven’s Adieu au piano, altered with a granular processor. The rhythmic noise is taken from the beginning of an old cylinder recording. The whole composition was created in Audiomulch.”
Track 2: “StaffGrabbing”
by C. Reider
Artist’s Description of Piece: “Broadly, my concept when planning / recording ‘StaffGrabbing’ was to portray the disorder of a system that may once have been in order, and a ‘rude intrusion’ that hastens the breakdown. The two sound-sources I chose to use were a recording of solo piano, and a hip-hop beat. The color wash in Jeremy Traum’s illustration gave me an excuse to start with a nice drone extruded from the piano sound-source, because, come on, who doesn’t like a nice drone? In a separate process, the piano recording was temporally distorted by shuffling chunks in an audio editor; this edit was run through a filterbank. The hip-hop beat was also temporally distorted: with nonlinear time stretching. I like the result because it evokes the lazy, slouching walk of someone with their pants hanging down too low. At the end, the notes all pile up in a big distorted mess on the floor.”
Track 3: “Discard”
by Moldilox (aka Joseph Luster)
Artist’s Description of Piece: “I thought this was a really cool and interesting project, and wanted to try my best to both capture the illustration and the music that’s a part of it. Now, I can’t really read sheet music, and my ‘training’ has pretty much all taken place in the land of beeps and boops, so there was a bit of a wall to climb. I decided to start by making a song based on the illustration, which just kind of came naturally and quickly. After I had most of that laid out, someone was kind enough to transcribe the sheet music into simple notes my ape brain can process, so I tracked (the majority of) those chords and used it as an opening to the track. All of the work was done using Milky Tracker (OS X) and a variety of sampled instruments, mostly from NES games.”
Track 4: “Upend (Based On Traum)”
by Mark Rushton
Artist’s Description of Piece: “It’s an intentionally ‘quiet’ mix. That’s in response to the article. I believe today’s homogenized pop played on FM radio stations is compressed to death and over-modulated so that even a good tune can be ruined, but since I don’t compose pop songs it doesn’t really matter to me so I do a ‘quiet mix.’ The overall piece is ‘inspired by’ the illustration rather than an attempt to reproduce. Everything in the collage was recorded outside: the field recording of the kids is from last summer, and the looped electronics are from a public performance I did in Iowa City in 2005 which was altered and mixed live. I took three sections from the original 2005 recording and kept one of them normal, while other two were pitched at one and two octaves lower than the original. There are some other loops in there, but these were the main inspiration. The live electronic loops tend to repeat, but in each round of looping I believe I tried to alter it somewhat when it was live (back in 2005); this, to me, is akin to seeing the notes run off the page and then picking everything back up on the left side of the page. And when I read these notes, I’m not exactly sure each time how they’re supposed to go (it’s been a while since I had to read music). The 2005 live performance loops were recorded off my Bose L1/B1 with binaural microphones into a Sony Minidisc recorder. The 2009 field recording loops were done with a Zoom H2 in stereo surround mode. Alterations and final mix were done in Sony Acid Pro using Grado headphones.”
Track 5: “Weight Mass Density”
by NQ (aka Nils Quak)
Artist’s Description of Piece: “The foundation of the track is a set of Risset tones, which I thought were a nice -- although quite obvious -- analogy for the picture of decay. Even though they appear to be always falling in pitch, the sensation is just an illusion as the pitch always stays in between given frequency borders. The Risset tones were re-recorded through a set of different granular processors to extrapolate the idea of a sound falling apart. The final piece is a document of decay. But more precisely, it’s a still life of a sound in decay. Frozen, yet moving, and producing new structures, cracks, fragments, and pieces –- always in the process of falling apart and never reaching its end. The Risset tones were produced with the Audiomulch Risset tone genearator. The Output was re-recorded in Ableton Live using several granular devices in series from Native Instruments’ Reaktor and the amazing Soundhack decimate plug-in from Tom Erbe somewhere in the chain. Small and final edits -- mostly just EQing out some disturbing frequencies -- were done in Bias Peak.”
Track 6: “Atlantic Sickness (For Nomad Palace)”
by He Can Jog (aka Erik Schoster)
Artist’s Description of Piece: “This piece is a construction from the information I found (and imagined) in the Atlantic illustration: chords and pitch sequences, raw jpeg data, and my impression of the visual tone were the primary ingredients used. Soundhack converted the jpeg data into raw audio; I used Max/MSP to translate this audio into control data to drive Propellerhead’s Reason and to manipulate the pitches I transcribed from the image as well as filter the sound directly with the audio generated from the image data; about thirty minutes of improvisation with this patch setup was dumped onto cassette tape and back and then arranged in Logic Pro and finally edited and processed in Amadeus Pro mostly with apple AUs and the Merzbizer pluggo by Akihiko Matsumoto. This was an exercise in free play with sound data and intuitive structure which I hope will be interesting to other listeners. I took more risks sonically than usual -- inspired by my fearless eight- and nine-year-old computer-music students. This is dedicated to Nomad Palace (aka Nate Zabriskie) who really needs to re-release his Atlantic Sickness album at some point.”
Track 7: “McArdle Minuet”
by Tom Moody
Artist’s Description of Piece: “I was curious to hear if the tune was anything I might recognize (it isn’t). I transcribed the notes by hand into a MIDI score editor, set for the same key and time signature as the score in the drawing. I included a random middle section for the ‘freak out’ where Traum’s musical staff breaks down. I ‘played’ the notes by letting the editor directly trigger commercial piano samples (a Steinway grand) at a moderate tempo. I know it’s wrong on a lot of levels but does attempt to take the actual notes into account.”
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The above artists were the first seven to contribute tracks, and they constituted the initial “release” of Despite the Downturn. Subsequent participating musicians are listed here:
Track 8: “Freeloader’s Theme”
by My Fun (aka Justin Hardison)
Artist’s Description of Piece: “I created this song as a sort of soundtrack for what I imagined as these little Charles Dickens characters rummaging around town and stashing notes and music in their bags to bring home and share with their families. I’ve always been interested in searching for sounds and making music with whatever I could find around me and money never had anything to do with it. The sounds were sourced from field recordings, classical vinyl, John Lee Hooker, synths and processed using lloopp, Soundhack, Reaktor and Live.”
Track 9: “Is It Theft?”
by Jettatura (James Rotondi)
Artist’s Description of Piece: “A piano and sample piece, inspired by the work of Harold Budd, ‘Is This Theft?’ is based around the key signature and some of the main motifs from Traum’s illustration (triplets, double-stops, color smears, disintegration, etc.), and is as much about the uneasy alliance between creative intimacy and technological advance as it is the question of digital rights and ethics. How does the organic act of creation cut through the digital info-noise of the internet era, without becoming entirely complicit in the technocratic value system it espouses? While the attempt to make the artist invisible within his own work remains a perfectly noble post-modern intention, and may well speak to the conditions we live under, does it possibly play into a system which is doubly disinterested in the humanity of the artist, especially if it means the artist may need to get paid for his work? (‘Pay who?’ the downloader might ask. ‘The software program that created the music?’) If the artist prefers to keep his hands hidden, perhaps the culture will have little motivation to fill them.”
Track 10: "That's a Traum! [Brontosaurus]"
by Simon Lott and Beta Collide
Description of Piece (by Brian McWhorter): This piece went down like this: asked by Marc Weidenbaum to realize a cartoon as though it was a graphic score; through a conversation with the cartoonist Jeremy Traum, discovered what musical score he excerpted in the graphic; I recorded snippets of said copy written piece with Eugene pianist Matt Svoboda; found additional samples to use of the tune (which I felt was almost a requirement given the subject); assembled a rough track; was emailed an incomplete track for a totally different project from New Orleans drummer Simon Lott; combined the two tracks; realized that the result was not a realization of the graphic-as-score, but rather, the music that must have been playing IN the cartoon itself. Beta Collide is Patrick Cronin (piano, subwoof), Robert Nash (guitar, electric bass), Simon Lott (drums), Brian McWhorter (vocals, trumpet), Matt Svoboda (piano).
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Despite the Downturn commissioned and compiled by Marc Weidenbaum (disquiet.com).